It was a tepid autumn night. I sat on my front porch, numb from the oppression of unrelenting exhaustion.
I wanted to feel the chill in the air as it pinched my cheeks. Fall is a season for letting go, I thought to myself, and if anyone needs to drop some baggage, it’s me.
With a heavy gaze, my eyes fixated and focused on the nothingness surrounding me as my mind searched for meaning in the crater of its own darkness.
Something had struck me earlier that year; it was dense and left me hollow, depleting all my inner resources. With a near-empty sigh, downtrodden in a wear-and-tear that plead resignation, I did something I hadn’t done in a long time. I clasped my hands together tentatively and prayed.
“Dear Creator,” I began. I did not know to whom or what, exactly, I was speaking to, but in that spiritual blindness, and with the broken heart of an aching child, I surrendered to that almost painful unknown, that mystery, and quietly blew my words out, like candles, into the wind. I did not know whether or not they would land into the hands of some elusive force or deity who either would, or would not, work in my favor. My faith was shaking. My voice quivered as I felt the knot in my throat, and my eyes filled rapidly with tears.
“I need help.” I choked on those words as I sobbed. “I don’t know what to do,” I protested.
My pain had become an albatross, unwearable and too heavy for me to bear alone. Every word, thought, and gesture felt monumental as I trudged through the fog that blurred my already obscured vision.
I remembered a friend of mine who graced my life for a season. She told me that she was a recovering codependent. I did not want that label, and I withdrew from her my energy after she insisted I take a closer look at myself. I was 27 at the time, and she was 54, with a string of failed relationships behind her and three grown children who were around my age. Pointed yet kind, she took me under her umbrella and handed me a mirror. There, I could see my own reflection, whether I liked it or not.
Apparently, back then, I did not, but a seed of awareness had already been planted. Now, a couple of years had passed, and here I was: emotionally and physically worn and torn, a burnt feather floating through a tumultuous windstorm. I was drowning up to my neck in grief and heartache, yearning so desperately to come up for air and to stand on ground again, reaching toward the sun. I longed for a breakthrough in the midst of this breakdown.
Something needed to change. Of that, I was most certain.
A couple of weeks later, my life took a detour. I attended my first Codependents Anonymous meeting online. Admittedly, I was nervous, on edge. I wasn’t interested in “cults” and definitely didn’t want any religion shoved down my throat. Take it for what you can, I said to myself. Life is like a buffet: you grab what suits your appetite and discard the rest. Take only what is good for you and nothing more. You’ve got this.
I pushed the “join with video” button and entered the meeting room. After several moments had passed, it felt like a homecoming. When I spoke, I could hear a pin drop. Everyone listened. I felt the depth of their presence incubate me.
“My name is Sarah, and I am a recovering codependent,” I said. Normally speaking, I would shudder to even think to share that with just about anyone—much less with a group of strangers—but this time, I felt the warm arms of solidarity around me. We were all one, a soul family with a common mission to heal life-long patterns that were no longer serving us. I waved farewell to my fears.
However, what struck me most about people’s stories was the fact that each person exhibited different characteristics of codependency and their dis-ease (notice: I put a hyphen between “dis” and “ease” because codependency is not a clinical illness; rather, it is a learned behavior with origins in early childhood and within the family unit, itself) manifested so uniquely in each individual. Not all of them had just left a relationship or even had a history of running from one empty union to the next without stopping for breath.
Somewhere in that moment, it dawned on me: codependency is so much more than just “love addiction.”
Yet, we hear these myths and stereotypes about codependency that have us believing we are exempt from it simply because we are not necessarily addicted to the highs and lows of volatile connections (although, truthfully, many codependents are, but it certainly isn’t a center-piece in the life of us all).
Codependency, in a nutshell, makes itself most visible in the need to seek validation from anything or anyone outside of ourselves, but its effects are insidious, lurking behind various layers and facades.
Many codependents are—or were—drug addicts and alcoholics, and many others are self-proclaimed “over-achievers” and workaholics who derive their tenuous sense of self-worth primarily through their accomplishments. Many, if not most codependents, are also pain-staking perfectionists who feel a sense of safety only when they can control the outcome of any, or perhaps even every, situation depending on how deeply rooted and severe.
Burdened with the need for a stamp of approval, we work harder to obtain the love, respect, and acceptance we feel we need. We tighten our lips in order to prevent ourselves from uttering something we or others may deem foolish, causing tension, or potentially being on the receiving end of any criticism or anger.
We fear making waves, and we hide “unpleasant” parts of ourselves in fear of hurting or upsetting others. We fear appearing “selfish,” “haphazard,” or flat-out “dumb.” We over-work or over-give in order to avoid the more destabilizing prospect of having to deal with difficult situations, people, or emotions—either in ourselves or in others. It allows us to self-soothe through denial patterns and bypass inner and outer confrontation.
Many of us grew up in homes where anger, alcohol, violence, or criticism were alive and vital. We may have had a narcissistic or difficult-to-please parent or one who, for some reason, had to be cared for. We, therefore, become the classic “parentified child.” Others only had a mild-to-moderately dysfunctional home where co-dependency was handed down from one generation to the next. The possibilities are endless.
Whatever the case, however, codependency was a set of attitudes and behaviors we adopted in order to survive. With time, these behaviors became a central part of how we functioned in our relationships and in the world at large.
We agree when we would rather disagree, say yes when it would be better for us to say no, and may both resent and take pride in playing the role of “the martyr,” “the caretaker,” or even the “employee of the year”—the one who picks up shifts last minute, continuously agrees to overtime hours in fear of reproach, and cancels important plans at last minute in order to please their partner or boss.
Codependents, at their core, do not feel as though they have any worth or relevance unless they are sacrificing parts of themselves for others, or even for a cause.
Often, this belief is an unconscious one, yet it governs the foundation of our lives. Over time, this can take a direct toll on our mental, spiritual, and even our physical health. We lose sleep caring for others or run ourselves to the ground trying to be “perfect” in some manner or in order to please important others in our lives. In one way or another, codependency runs its course and takes its toll.
When we’re talking about mental health, we must be careful about the context in which we use terms like “narcissist” or “codependent” as these terms are all too often used with such flippancy in our culture today. The truth is, so many people struggle with codependent behaviors, and just as many remain not-so-blissfully unaware that they themselves are in fact, codependent. This either delays or downright squanders recovery, which is already a long and winding road.
I was the child who never “fit in.” I was sensitive, shy, and empathic, the perfect target for aggressive bullies. I struggled with math and with number facts, in general. I was timid and struggled to make friends, although, at home, I was talkative and even rather lively at times—sometimes I would even talk my parents’ ears off as soon as they got home from work.
However, I was usually the last kid to be chosen in games and I disliked sports. I preferred writing stories, drawing pictures, and sometimes had imaginary friends before the age of seven. I created stories in my head involving these characters and became lost in the storyline. I had sufficient social skills, but I was used to being alone and suffered from a lot of social anxiety.
In third grade, I befriended a boy in my class who, like myself, was shy. I played with him and his friends nearly every day and became the butt of jokes from other girls my age who asked me, with crooked eyebrows: “Why do you play with boys?” I was bullied for that too, even though I wouldn’t necessarily have called myself a “tomboy.” I could and did play with children of both genders, but gendered play was far more acceptable in the eyes of the other kids.
I called this particular boy in my class my “boyfriend.” I liked him simply because he was quiet and kind like I was. Once I moved to another school the following year, I struggled once again to make friends, and when I finally made them, gave up my snacks and lunches in order to keep them. They became so accustomed to me saying “yes” each time they asked if they could have my food that they began reaching their hands, unwelcomed, into my lunchbox without asking. I never said a word. I never even complained to anyone else about it, but I was so hungry when I got home from school each day.
It didn’t end there, but those are some of my earliest, mild, memories of “not fitting in.” “People-pleasing” tendencies were passed down to me and chronic drinking also ran along the familial lines.
Today, after seven months in CODA, my prayers are lighter, my words filled with pockets of gratitude as the sun shines through me. I sit on my porch and watch as spring unfolds. I feel a renewal in me. No longer am I bending over backward to keep others standing. Now, I will kindly agree to disagree or say what I need to whenever the moment calls for it.
Slowly but surely, I am also learning to stand in honor of and embody my truth, whatever that may be. I try to show up and be vulnerable. I now see this as its own form of courage, as courage does not always roar like we’ve all been told. Integrity is something I try my hardest to live by.
Last but not least, I am learning to care less and less about what other people think—something that has always been quite challenging for me to let go of. True, sometimes I still struggle, but healing is never a quick or linear process, and here I am right now, telling my story with abandon.